When you walk up to 2 Divinity Ave. in the northern part of Harvard’s campus, the first thing you’re likely to notice are the stone lions that flank the main entrance. Donated in 1962, these statues — which are originally from Beijing and are also featured on the East Asian Studies Department’s logo — are one of the few outside indications that the Department is housed inside.
A closer look, however, will reveal another carved ornament: a map of the world etched in stone, sitting above the door and standing out from the warm red brick. The map is centered on the Americas, and Asia is cut out almost entirely — curious for a building that houses East Asian Studies. Truthfully, it hints at the building’s complicated past.
For the past 65 years, the building at 2 Divinity Ave. has been the nexus of three of Harvard’s major East Asian Studies organizations: Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard-Yenching Library, and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. But this was not always the case. It was originally constructed to house the Institute of Geographical Exploration, a short-lived department organized and funded by Alexander Hamilton Rice, Class of 1898.
The history of the Institute of Geographical Exploration begins with a donation from Eleanor Elkins Widener, who also funded the construction of Widener Library as a memorial to her son who drowned with the Titanic. She also lost her husband in the disaster, and afterwards remarried to Rice.
Educated as a surgeon, Rice developed an interest in geography after leading several trips to South America to create maps of the Amazon River basin. These trips resulted in racist and extractive encounters with — and in at least one case, the murder of — Indigenous peoples of the region.
After returning, Rice searched for an executive role to make his interest official. He first donated money to the American Geographical Society, in hopes of obtaining the position of director, but failed. Then he turned to Harvard.
Widener and Rice approached former University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, with a deal: They would use the Widener fortune to fund the construction and maintenance of the Institute of Geographical Exploration, as long as Harvard appointed Rice as institute director and a professor.
“It’'s kind of a vanity project for him,” EALC department head David L. Howell says.
Lowell ultimately accepted their donation and terms, and they hired Horace Trumbauer, the same architecture company that built Widener Library, to build the institute in 1930. The architect behind the build was Julian Francis Abele, who also designed Widener and was the first Black graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts.
Though Rice by then had the title Director of the Institute of Geographical Exploration, problems surrounding his reputation arose. The geography and geology departments disdained him, referring to him as a “scoundrel” and “nuisance” for the fact that he essentially purchased his University position.
After Harvard discontinued its geography department in 1948, there was no impetus to keep the institute alive. Rice left Harvard in 1951 to return to Widener’s 65-room Newport cottage.
As the Institute of Geographical Exploration declined, East Asian Studies was coming into its stride. In 1958, six years after Rice left, the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard-Yenching Library, and EALC moved to 2 Divinity Ave.
Yet the story of East Asian Studies at Harvard begins long before the move to its long-term home on campus. Its history starts in 1879, when Harvard’s first teacher of Chinese, Ge Kunhua, arrived from Ningbo, China. He only taught for three years, but his posting spurred Harvard to start a Chinese and Japanese book collection. It wasn’t until around 40 years later that a more permanent East Asia program was established.
“There was nothing much until the early 20th century,” Howell says. “The key thing was that in 1928, the Harvard Yenching Institute was founded with a gift from Charles Hall.”
Hall made his wealth from the aluminum business, and around 1925 the trustees of his estate began working with Harvard and Yenching University in Beijing to coordinate the expansion of Harvard’s book collection and help promote higher education in East Asia.
As the institute was getting off the ground, Harvard began offering its first course in the East Asian Studies discipline. Its instructor hired a doctoral student, Alfred Kaiming Chiu, to catalog the collection that would become Yenching Library. In 1929, the library and Harvard-Yenching Institute moved into Boylston Hall.
Just one year later, the library was officially named the “Chinese-Japanese Library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute.” It quickly became “the home for Chinese students and scholars of East Asian studies,” writes Harvard-Yenching Associate Director Ruohong Li in a 2021 paper.
Between the years of 1928 and 1958, all three of these organizations grew increasingly robust. A turning point occurred in the “post-WWII years,” when there was “an increasing demand not only for significant expansion of courses in East Asian Studies, but also for library collections in East Asian languages on traditional subjects as well as contemporary East Asian issues and problems,” Li wrote.
The growth was “in part supported by the U.S. government and big foundations, like the Ford Foundation, and others, partly as a Cold War thing,” says Howell. “Lots of people were directed — by people I mean male university students, but also veterans coming back from the war — were directed into the study of Japanese and Chinese, and to some extent, Korean language, because of the war.”
Around that point, it became clear that Boylston simply wasn’t big enough — nor fit to protect the growing number of rare texts housed there. After a brief renovation, the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard-Yenching Library, and EALC all moved into 2 Divinity Ave.
East Asian Studies at Harvard has continued to grow since the 1950s. The library has 1.4 million holdings as of 2018. Yenching Institute, though no longer affiliated with the now- defunct Yenching University, continues a robust program of exchange of scholars and scholarship between East Asia and Harvard, and the EALC department has a wide variety of yearly course offerings as well as a renowned language study program. Rather like Boylston before it, 2 Divinity Ave. — replete with its nested history of area-based study at Harvard — has become too small to contain the entirety of the East Asian Studies Department. Many of its offices and classrooms occupy satellite spaces.
When you pass the lions and enter the foyer of 2 Divinity Ave., you’ll see a plaque with Rice’s name mounted to the right of the entrance. As the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department looks to the future, some have begun to notice the disconnect between Rice’s role and views and what the building stands for now. The department has been debating potentially replacing the plaque with one that honors the building’s architect, Abele, instead.
“He seems like somebody who would be more interesting and more worthwhile to celebrate than a vestige from the past,” Howell says.
— Associate Magazine Editor Mila G. Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.